NFL Preview - Cincinnati (2-2) at Jacksonville (1-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - So, Carson Palmer -- any regrets?
When the quarterback and former No. 1 overall draft pick took the third year of his six-year, $118.75 million contract off and went home in an effort to force a trade from the only NFL team he's ever known, most expected his absence to mean even more despair for a Cincinnati Bengals team that lost 12 times in 2010.
Problem was, no one got around to telling Andy Dalton.
The presumed poster boy for rookie mediocrity has adjusted just fine to competitive life on Sundays, having already led the Bengals to half their win total in four games that they managed all last season in the full complement of 16.
Dalton's latest trick came last weekend against the previously-unbeaten Buffalo Bills, responding to a seven-point fourth-quarter deficits with two consecutive scoring drives that gave Cincinnati a dramatic 23-20 triumph at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals return to the road this Sunday in Jacksonville, where they'll face another novice signal-caller -- 2011 No. 10 overall draft pick Blaine Gabbert -- and the rest of the Jaguars at EverBank Stadium.
Dalton bounced back from a 7-for-20, two-interception performance in the first half of the Buffalo game and earned another helping of respect from teammates young and old.
"We have a great quarterback in Andy, and he didn't flinch one time out there," said wide receiver A.J. Green, a fellow rookie. "He had a couple of passes that were off, but he came back strong."
"It's not about whether he's got Superman talent or all this," Bengals left offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said of Dalton. "He knows how to get you in and out of the huddle and put you in the good situations, and he's going to play with his heart. And that's going to help you win football games."
Gabbert, drafted to caddy for David Garrard before the veteran was released the week before the season opener, sat behind journeyman Luke McCown for two games before getting his initial crack at Jacksonville's starting slot in a 16-10 Week 3 at Carolina.
An encore against New Orleans last Sunday ended in a 23-10 loss and yielded continued problems for Jacksonville in generating anything resembling a consistent offensive attack.
Gabbert has completed just 47.8 percent of 69 passes with two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 62.9 passer rating for the Jaguars, who are last or second- to-last among the NFL's 32 teams in scoring, total yards and passing yards.
Jacksonville has scored just 39 points through the first four games, and no more than 16 in any particular week.
In fact, if not for workhorse running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who's second in the league with 391 rushing yards, who knows how ineffective the Jaguars would be on offense?
"I think there are a lot of things that are very close," Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio said. "I recognize the fact that 10 points a game won't get it done, and we have a design on much better, much more, and need it. No amount of bellyaching is going to help that process improve.
"It's execution. It's taking care of the little details and making the plays that are there to be made. We need production, we need playmaking and that's what we're looking for."
Jacksonville has prevailed in 11 of its 17 regular-season meetings with Cincinnati, but the Bengals halted a four-game losing streak in the series by posting a 21-19 home win in 2008. Cincinnati dropped a 23-20 decision to the Jaguars in its last visit to Jacksonville, which took place in 2005, and has lost seven straight times at EverBank Field since recording its only lifetime victory there, a 17-13 triumph on Nov. 26, 1995 in the Jaguars' first season of existence.
These teams were both part of the AFC Central from 1995 through 2001 prior to the NFL's most recent realignment.
Del Rio is 1-1 against Cincinnati over his nine-year tenure as the Jaguars' head coach, while the Bengals' Marvin Lewis owns an identical record against both Jacksonville and in head-to-head matchups with Del Rio. The two were co- workers on the Baltimore Ravens' staff from 1999-2001, with Lewis serving as defensive coordinator and Del Rio as linebackers coach.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Dalton, a second-round pick in this past April's draft, has completed 37-of-56 attempts (66.1 percent) for 413 yards, three touchdowns and a 105.7 passer rating in two road starts this year. He had two touchdowns last week (one passing, one rushing) and became the first Cincinnati rookie to pass and run for scores in a game since Jack Thompson in 1979. Running back Cedric Benson posted his 14th career game of over 100 rushing yards with the Bengals last week, and Cincinnati is 12-2 when he eclipses that mark. In his only previous meeting with the Jaguars, Benson rushed for 104 yards with a touchdown on 24 carries. Rookie Green, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 draft, leads AFC rookies in catches (19) and receiving yards (312), and posted his second career 100-yard game (118 yards) last week. He's also tied for the NFL lead with three catches of 40-plus yards. Tight end Jermaine Gresham had a career-best 70 receiving yards last week and is averaging 15.1 yards per catch in his last two games, compiling eight catches for 121 yards over that stretch.
Linebacker Paul Posluszny leads Jacksonville defense with 30 tackles and registered his first sack of the season against the Saints in Week 4. Safety Dawan Landry posted his first interception as a Jaguar last week, while linebacker Daryl Smith also had a pick for Jacksonville in that loss. Up front, defensive end Austen Lane recorded his first career sack against New Orleans.
Cincinnati is 23rd in scoring (20.0 points per game), 20th in total yards (340.5 yards per game), 23rd in passing yards (225.2 ypg) and 12th in rushing yards (115.2 ypg). Defensively, Jacksonville is tied for 10th in points allowed (21.2 ppg), 12th in total defense (335.8 ypg), 14th against the pass (228.8 ypg) and 16th versus the run (107.0 ypg).
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Rookie Gabbert has a 90-plus fourth-quarter passer rating in two of his three career games and threw for a career-best 196 yards last week, though he completed only 16-of-42 attempts. Since the start of last season, Jones-Drew has 80 or more rushing yards in eight of nine home games he's participated in, and the All-Pro back is averaging 97.7 rushing yards per game this season (391 total). Wide receiver Mike Thomas has a reception of 30-plus yards in each of Jacksonville's past two games, while tight end Marcedes Lewis needs just two touchdown catches to surpass Reggie Williams (18) for third-most in franchise history, behind only Jimmy Smith (67) and Keenan McCardell (30). With 2,305 career receiving yards, Lewis also needs only 18 more to pass Williams and move into fifth place in team history in that category. Fellow tight end Zach Miller registered the first touchdown catch of his career in last week's loss.
Cincinnati's top-ranked defense is led by tackle Geno Atkins, who has notched 2 1/2 sacks in his past three games. Safety Reggie Nelson, meanwhile spent three seasons (2007-09) with the Jaguars and was a former first-round pick of the team.
The Jaguars are dead last in the league in scoring (9.8 points per game), 31st in total offense (264.2 yards per game), last in passing yards (137.5 ypg) and sixth in rushing yardage (126.8 ypg). The Bengals are sixth in scoring defense (18.5 ppg), first in total yards allowed (275.5 ypg), third in pass defense (188.8 ypg) and seventh against the run (86.8 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Gabbert simply must improve his accuracy and down-the-field acumen if the Jaguars are to force the Bengals' defense away from the line of scrimmage and open up space for Jones-Drew.
On the flip side, the Bengals' Benson aims for a 15th 100-yard game as a Bengal against a Jacksonville team that's been middle-of-the-pack of the league rankings against the run. Containing him should increase the Jaguars' odds of coming away with a victory
Dalton threw for 332 yards in his last road trip, a Week 2 loss at Denver, and can take another step towards erasing Palmer's memory with a few aerial connections to the equally young and impressive Green.
It's hard to fathom a team coming off a 4-12 season considered a road favorite, but the Bengals seem primed for that role heading into Jacksonville for a date with the punchless Jaguars. Unless Gabbert suddenly catches fire -- possible, but not likely against a tough defense -- expect Cincinnati to grind its way to 3-2 with a hard-fought win along the Atlantic coast.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 21, Jaguars 13
10/06 13:10:02 ET